We come into the world with distinctive physical, mental and spiritual characteristics, and varying natural abilities. Irrespective of what our personal beliefs are about how we came to be who we are so far in this life, we arrived into this world like unshaped clay with distinct qualities, nascent with potential to be developed and sculpted into something better.
Just as the sculptor feels called upon to mold a lump of clay into a beautiful vase or an inspirational work of art, so too are we compelled in this life to mold our clay into the best version of ourselves. Certainly genetics, environment, and life circumstances have an effect on our clay, but how our clay is molded is ultimately in our hands. We always have a choice.
To mold our clay into its optimal form, we first need to be thankful for what we have been given. Until there is gratefulness a person will never truly appreciate his or her inherent potential. Next, we must begin the process of discovering objectively our clay’s potential, characteristics, malleability and consistency. Lastly, we must learn how to cultivate its inherent potential, beauty, uniqueness, and power. The clay from which we are formed is a gift and each of us has the choice to embrace the job of sculpting it with joy!
Many people, however, never realize and acknowledge the inherent potential because they all too often tend to focus on what they consider to be their shortcomings. They may also spend too much time focusing on the clay of others—clay that always appears to have better qualities and greater potential than their own. We can only begin to realize our uniqueness and potential, when we stop being at war with ourselves. The war usually involves incessantly comparing ourselves to others and constantly focusing on what we think we lack.
Gratefulness for what we have and acceptance of who we are allow us to develop our clay’s uniqueness and potential without unhealthy and negative self-criticism. As one sage said to his student, “Stop trying to be the second-best version of someone else and start getting on with the business of becoming the best version of yourself!”
To best understand how to work with our clay, it is essential to do some healthy and objective analysis of our clay. Faced with such a task, sincere people may start by making lists of what they feel are their ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ points or their ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ personality traits. Others may make a list of what they feel are their special gifts or glaring deficiencies. Some thoughtful souls will write down the opinions of those people who genuinely know and love them, and the objective minority may even write down the criticisms of those who don’t like them because they know that even hurtful comments may contain elements of truth waiting to be acknowledged. The problem with such analyses, however, is that they produce clearly defined lists of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ qualities without appropriate context! Certainly some very extreme qualities may be bad or good, but the majority of our personality traits do not belong in clearly defined black or white categories but rather in the swirling grey. We are a complex tapestry of many qualities.
From a much broader perspective, the vast majority of our tendencies and characteristics are not inherently ‘good’ or ‘bad’, but become ‘good or ‘bad’ depending on the circumstances and context in which they are asserted.
For example, if someone has characteristics that could be described as very intense, high-spirited, extremely energetic, upbeat, or even over-the-top, these qualities may be useful and positive if they serve to shake up a situation bogged down by apathy, inactivity and low energy. But, if the situation at hand requires a low-keyed approach with a calming presence and quiet composure, these intense and energetic qualities could wreak havoc and be deemed detrimental or ‘bad’.
Another individual might be very low-keyed, calm, cool and collected. These maybe wonderful or ‘good’ qualities in a very nervous, tense or emotionally charged situation, but if a situation needs a spark of high-powered energy and overt enthusiasm to get things moving, these same qualities may be thought of as ineffective or ‘bad’.
A bossy person may be difficult to deal with, but that demanding person may have the potential to be a great leader if he or she can learn the contextually appropriate use of their assertiveness.
A quiet and dutiful person may not make a great leader, but may be an excellent listener and become a diplomat or psychologist. There should be no overt value judgment about most of the qualities of our clay outside of some specific context! That which makes most of our attributes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ is their appropriateness, effectiveness and expediency in a specific situation. The ‘art’ is in developing the self-awareness to know when our natural tendencies help or hurt a given situation. In other words, we must learn when to let our natural tendencies flow freely and when to curtail or modify them for the sake of the situation or task at hand.
The visionary and practical sculptor will assess the many qualities of the clay in front of him, and then focus ALL of his or her energy, skill, and creativity on molding the clay into the best piece of art it can be.
A lesser artist will complain about the amount of clay, its consistency and quality, the inadequacies of the workspace, how tired they are, the small amount of time available for the work, etc., letting worries and circumstances distract him or her from realizing the potential of the clay at hand. The visionary and practical artist will strive to create something that comes close to realizing the full potential of the clay in accordance with its natural qualities and tendencies, despite challenging circumstances. We must do the same! We must stop complaining about what we think we lack, and stop gloating about what we think we have! Neither of these two attitudes will lead to genuine progress. We must stay focused on becoming the best we can be, and stop wasting time and energy, bemoaning what we lack or luxuriating in our gifts. No matter what you have, it needs to be developed.
The clay from which we are made and the environments in which we have lived can create very powerful drives in us. Left unchecked, these drives create unconscious and instinctual default mechanisms, influencing how we react and relate to the world around us. These default mechanisms usually kick in when we are confronted by new, challenging, or stressful situations. Unfortunately, our default patterns or automatic response mechanisms are not always needed in every situation, but we defer to them because they flow instinctively and feel right to us. But the fact that they flow instinctively and feel right to us doesn’t make them the best response in every situation. We are often deceived and blinded by what feels right to us, and can become addicted to our default mechanisms and blindly follow them, even though they don’t produce the results we would like. We allow these default patterns to repeat over and over again, yet wonder why we experience frustration, disappointment, anger, and confusion when they don’t produce the results we would like!
A famous quote by Albert Einstein applies here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
It is understandable for people to rely on their default mechanisms because they seem natural, instinctive, and feel right, but that doesn’t make them the most effective in every situation. Some natural tendencies and default patterns are very resistant to change, making it difficult to be objective. Add some especially challenging life circumstances, a less than perfect environment, and heaven forbid, drugs or alcohol, and patterns can be formed that will repeat themselves over and over again, even if the results are unproductive, frustrating, painful, and destructive to ourselves and others.
There is a simple truth that we must all learn if we are to break the cycle of being ruled by our default mechanisms:
Just because something feels right doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do.
Our default mechanisms play a large role when we are trying to work with others, learn new skills, and deal with new or difficult situations. When faced with new challenges, our default mechanisms automatically kick in to “help” us cope with the new demands, but if the new demands require something other than our usual tendencies and habits we will be mired in frustration and progress will proceed at a much slower pace, if at all. We must learn to acknowledge our default mechanisms, observe them objectively, and determine when and how they help or hinder what we are trying to do. Many people cling to their familiar and comfortable default tendencies because they are like old friends, even though they hinder their progress in learning. Simply wanting something badly will not guarantee success; doing what needs to be done in a given situation is what leads toward success. Do it with confidence and joy!